Irrigation odds same as 2013

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Next year’s irrigation season looks to be a repeat of 2013 — a gamble that mountain snow melt and summer rain will supply enough water to keep irrigation going until the usual November 1 closure date.

Last year, the summer monsoon kicked in just in time to save the season when the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District’s share of reservoir water ran out, hydrologist David Gensler told the district’s board of directors at Monday’s special water bank meeting in Albuquerque.

“The best case scenario is to get about 60,000 acre feet in storage this year,” he said. “Last year, we had 42,000 acre feet. The worst case scenario is 5,000 acre feet.”

In a normal year, 300,000 acre feet would already be stored in reservoirs, and allocations to users would have been made, he said in an interview after the meeting. But this winter is anything but normal.

“Right now, only 25 percent (of the district’s allocation) has been made, about 5,000 acre feet,” he said.

An acre foot is 325,851 gallons, enough water to cover an acre one foot deep,

The district has been promised 15,000 acre feet of San Juan-Chama Project water this year, down from last year’s share of 21,000 acre feet, Socorro MRGCD director Chris Sichler said in an interview before the meeting.

The Albuquerque-Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority has proposed leasing to the district 21,000 additional acre feet from its SJC water allotment, Gensler said, pending adequate run off this spring. The board agreed to the proposal, which includes a provision allowing part or all of the water loan repayment to be “offsets,” amounts equal to depletions the water utility’s wells cause to groundwater recharging the Rio Grande.

The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation’s San Juan-Chama Project, completed in 1971, delivers water through a tunnel from the San Juan River in northern New Mexico to Heron Lake, where it is released into the Rio Chama, a tributary of the Rio Grande. The Project’s purpose is to provide water to municipal, domestic and industrial users, but can be used to supplement irrigation.

The state has promised the district an additional 40,000 acre feet of “credit water,” Sichler said before the meeting. “Article VII (of the Rio Grande Compact) requires that when Elephant Butte is under 400,000 acre feet, we cannot store (Rio Grande) water,” he said. “But we have credits. We’ve over delivered to Texas, so we have 40,000 acre feet that we can store if there’s enough run-off.”

The 1938 Rio Grande Compact is a river-sharing agreement between Texas and New Mexico based on the amount of Rio Grande flow entering Elephant Butte reservoir at San Marcial.

Whether the desperately needed spring run off from melting snow will materialize is anyone’s guess. The Albuquerque National Weather Service office forecasts a record-breaking dry winter pattern, although some precipitation may arrive in the coming weeks. Snow pack this week ranges from 73 percent of average in the upper Rio Grande basin to 77 percent in the upper San Juan basin and 78 percent in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains east of Santa Fe, according to figures on the New Mexico SNOTEL snow/precipitation update website. Even though there’s hope that the dry weather pattern will break, chances are New Mexico will see the third consecutive winter and spring with below-average snow pack and precipitation.

“Come the beginning of the year, the snow shut down,” said Albuquerque Weather Service meteorologist Chuck Jones. “We had decent snow in November and December, but it’s now close to six weeks that the snow pack has been diminishing. Unless these storms come in next week, we’ll see a dip in the snow pack. If we’re looking at the long-range forecasts, overall below average precipitation across New Mexico is forecast well into the spring — February, March and April.

“With below-average precipitation and above-average temperatures (forecast), it’s a double whammy. We could be facing another dry, windy, warm spring.”

The board agreed to keep water bank triggers the same this year as in 2013, based on Gensler’s recommendation.

Water bank users — 300 people leasing district water to irrigate approximately 3,200 acres without water rights — should expect their water delivery to be curtailed unless Rio Grande flow rates reach a trigger point, Gensler said.

Storage and flow triggers are posted on the district’s website.

Even though the flow triggers are set up north, he said water managers will still be able to lift water bank curtailments when storm run off increases supply in a specific area, as happened in the Cochiti and Socorro Divisions last year.

Director Adrian Oglesby, representing Albuquerque’s north valley, pointed out it’s only fair water bank users, having sold their water rights, should pay the full cost of water delivery.

“Water bank farmers have made an active choice,” he said. “We (should) charge the water bank the actual cost of delivering the water.”

The district has set $110 per acre per year as the cost of water delivery and infrastructure upkeep, said district chief engineer Subhas Shah.

Sichler, who chairs the water bank committee, said charging the $110 rate would price out many water bank farmers, and is more than is necessary and reasonable.

“Something the water bank committee considered is keeping agriculture going in the valley,” Sichler said.

“The water bank rate is actual cost of the value of the water,” he said. “We looked at different rates in the West. Fifty dollars falls right about in the middle of what everyone is charging. The $50 rate is what we consider the value of the water.”

The water service charge covers district infrastructure costs, he said. Landowners within district boundaries pay the water service charge as part of their property taxes. The current charge is $28 per acre per year and has stayed the same since its inception in 1995.

All the directors except Oglesby voted to keep the 2014 water bank lease rate and fee the same as last year — $50 per acre per year plus a $100 administrative fee per lease, On Bernalillo County director John Kelly’s recommendation, the board agreed to have the lease contract specify the lease’s water service charge to be whatever is in effect at the time the lease is made, since the rates may need to increase beginning in July to cover district budget shortfalls.

Irrigator Joe Baca wanted to know if curtailments will be enforced this year. Baca said water bank users in his area irrigated last year despite being curtailed.

Sichler assured Baca the district is trying hard to fix these and other bugs in the water bank system.

A special water bank rate meeting was supposed to have happened by Jan. 15, but the board didn’t schedule the water bank rate meeting in time to adhere to the Open Meetings Act.